Still Learning at Google: Prioritization – The Visible Invisible Skill

17 Years of Lessons Learned – Part 3

There’s something deeply annoying about receiving feedback about prioritization. It can feel patronizing; an “I know what you should have done and you didn’t do it” feeling. How do they know best? And yet it’s some of the most important feedback I’ve received. Prioritization is a key element of leadership. The skills: Being able to bring a critical eye to the business you run, identify ways to rank what’s important, and then sharing that with others.


By 2004 my job had expanded rapidly. I remember working my normal policy job during the day, and then going home and helping launch a new product from my couch. I don’t remember much else about that time because I was working so much.

That couch was pretty comfortable, but there was a problem lurking within that work pattern.

“Alana’s job has grown beyond anyone’s ability – even Alana’s – to complete everything. While Alana is usually able to prioritize well, over this review period there were a couple of key issues …that became lower priority than they should have been.”

Feedback is always more useful with specific examples, but due to confidentiality, I had to redact the specifics. Specifics helps ground people in a way that generic feedback misses. In this particular case, the examples annoyed me. It was a long time ago, but my annoyance stemmed from 2 things.

  1. I already felt guilty that the items I neglected hadn’t gotten done and caused problems. And it was annoying to see that used against me when I did so much other stuff well.
  2. I remember faintly disagreeing with what others wanted to do on those projects, and I delayed confronting that. And then I was doubly annoyed that I paid for the avoidance.

That feeling of being annoyed was very real and influenced how I processed the feedback. I’m all about accepting and being in tune with emotions, but ultimately how I felt was irrelevant. The feedback was legitimate. I did have to learn prioritization and then communicating that prioritization to others. I hate when people say ‘feedback is a gift’, but if it works, then great. It’s a package you have to accept no matter whether you like what’s inside. It’s the white elephant gift of the workplace.

So you think you can prioritize?

Amid all of the work, I hadn’t used any system for deciding what to do. Some things I had not done because I was busy, others because I simply didn’t want to. I was attracted to some projects because I was naturally better in those areas, and other projects I avoided because they were annoying. I was taking the path of least resistance through an ever-growing pile of work, and I was not taking the time to understand why I wasn’t doing certain things.

If I’d had a prioritization method or system, I would have noticed a couple issues ranked higher than I thought at first glance. I either would have completed them sooner or communicated better about what I was planning.

Going forward I worked on a few items to improve:

  1. Think of what you do as a business, and your time as the funding. What are you going to invest in and why? Thinking this way provides me a sense of detachment. It’s no longer about me or my personal preferences. I’m here to run a successful business. Period.
  2. Then rank your work. If you have 5 projects to complete, what are key criteria you can use to rank them? For example, can you quantify revenue or operational benefits across them and rank? Check out The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinkingfor suggested models.
  3. Communicate what you decided to others. This is key. You’ll want others to know why you are or aren’t working on something. Be open to feedback, of course, especially from your management. Not having that conversation doesn’t help advance your case since people will guess your motives and likely get them wrong (e.g. “she just doesn’t like working with me”).

A friend and valued colleague asked whether I should add “Learning to say no” here. Absolutely! It’s implied you’ll have to do that during communication. True prioritization means some things don’t get done, a pure no. I think that’s a whole article all on its own though, so I’ll add it to my To Do list. In this case I’m not saying no, but I am saying later!

Getting Better

I didn’t receive further feedback about prioritization. Once you get better at something, you may not hear about it again. It’s not like the Scouts where you get a badge; no one criticizes or compliments you because, once achieved, it’s an invisible skill. You never hear someone say, “that’s impressive prioritization” because structure and clarity should just work. So how can you tell if you’re good at this?

I watch for signs to either revisit prioritization or improve my communication:

  • If urgency shifts for something on my plate
  • If I’m surprised by a fire in an area I own
  • If someone wonders if I’m working on something they need
  • If I hear someone else is spinning up a similar effort versus leveraging my effort
  • And since I now manage people, if my people are confused about what they should work on.

Seamless execution is a key you’re on to something. Occasionally I’ll receive a compliment that about how well I executed on a project, and I’ll mentally check a box next to various skills like prioritization. Give a woo for order!N

Note: I don’t provide names or other identifiable information of who gave/provided me feedback. I also omit any confidential or sensitive information about specific work or people. I share quotations so you can experience the feedback as I did, but those examples are carefully curated. The opinions stated are my own, not those of my company.

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